Too often, political journalism is the art of asking the wrong question.
We can preoccupy ourselves wondering whether or not a particular tactic will work. These are valid enough deductions, but the whole exercise can read like theatre criticism.
At the moment, there is only one question to ask, and it’s this.
Is it right for Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton to weaponise national security in the run-up to an election they evidently fear they could lose?
If you ask the correct question, the answer is simple and clear.
The answer is no.
Given there is no concrete evidence of significant policy differences between Labor and the Coalition on China – at least none that I’m currently aware of – Morrison and Dutton puffing themselves up like mini-me McCarthyists imperils the national interest.
By turning question time into a treason tribunal – staging a daily Judge Judy session to unmask the sleeper agent in our midst – Morrison and Dutton are actively stoking societal anxiety.
Given the current climate, that behaviour creates material risk.
You don’t have to take my word for it. In fact, please don’t take my word for it. Let me hand you over to Australia’s domestic spy chief, Mike Burgess.
He’s rebuked the partisan grubbiness twice, publicly and politely, in the space of a week. That level of public intervention from the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation is highly unusual.
After Morrison and Dutton ignored the first rebuke by Burgess (what would he know after all?), a former spy chief, Dennis Richardson – one of the most respected former public servants in the country – entered the fray. Now retired, he can be more direct than Burgess.
Richardson told the ABC on Thursday morning: “What is unusual in this case is that the government is seeking to create the perception of a difference between it and the opposition on a critical national security issue, that is China – seeking to create the perception of a difference when none in practise exists”.
“That’s not in the national interest.
“That only serves the interests of one country, and that is China.”
Let Richardson’s latter point settle in your mind for a moment.
I’ll repeat it again, because politics is so noisy at the moment it can be hard to sort signal from noise.
Richardson said the current political debate is serving China’s interests, not Australia’s.
As excoriations go, that one was pretty succinct.
The context for Richardson’s observations can be stepped through quickly.
The intelligence community believes Beijing is taking an interest in the outcome of the looming Australian election. Burgess revealed in his annual threat assessment a “recent” meddling plot had been disrupted. Burgess also warned that “angry and alienated Australians” could turn to violence after being exposed to “an echo chamber” of extremist messaging, misinformation and conspiracy theories during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Australian federal police commissioner Reece Kershaw noted this week maintaining public order in Canberra over the past two months had been “challenging”. He added police were also “aware of increased espionage and foreign interference threats”.
Recent history tells us foreign interference is easier to execute in an environment of societal divisions and low levels of trust in institutions.
On Thursday morning, Richardson exposed the monumental irony of the increasingly hyperbolic and incendiary posturing of Morrison and Dutton.
The two men currently pretending that only they can keep Australia safe in a dangerous world (unlike those alleged Manchurian candidates opposite) are amply demonstrating their appetite for partisan recklessness.
It also needs to be noted, in the context of recent leaks and persistent internal division, that Morrison’s rhetoric has crept up in increments over the past few days to match Dutton’s.
Almost like there was an undeclared leadership contest going on inside the government. Almost like, after comprehensively messing up the religious discrimination deliberations last week, Morrison feels suddenly vulnerable to the wrath of government conservatives. Almost like he needs to prove something.
Whatever the motives of these two individuals – this much can be said. The two men who claim to be the only reliable custodians of Australia’s national interest are currently imperilling it to win an election.
To hang on to power.
Which is apparently more important than any other consideration.
Whatever it takes. Whatever it costs.
This behaviour is beyond reckless. It is beyond disgraceful.
It is amoral and corrosive.
And it needs to be called for what it is.